This report emerges from a national survey that looks at how people use a variety of information sources to help them address some common problems that could be related in some way to government agencies and programs. The problems about which we queried included: dealing with a serious illness or health concern; making a decision about school enrollment, financing school, or upgrading work skills; dealing with a tax matter; changing a job or starting a business; and getting information about major programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The survey’s major findings:

  • The internet is a go-to source. In general, more people turn to the internet (at home, work, libraries or other places) than any other source of information and support, including experts and family members. There was some variance in the results, depending on the type of problem people faced. Experts mattered most when people faced health problems; government agencies topped the list when information about specific programs was the concern.
  • Searchers usually end up satisfied. People tended to use two or three information sources in their quest and they generally report good results, especially when they consult government agencies, librarians, and the internet.
  • Libraries meet special needs. Young adults in Generation Y (age 18-29) are the heaviest users of libraries when they face these problems. They are also the most likely library visitors for any purpose. Most of those who visit libraries to seek problem-solving information are very satisfied with what they find and they appreciate the resources available there, especially access to computers and the internet.
  • Digital divides matter. Compared to those who have broadband connections, people who do not use the internet or who only use dial-up connections have different problems and different search strategies when they face personal issues. We call this group the low-access population and they are less successful than those with high-access to the internet in getting the material they need to address these problems.
  • Government documents should be created and delivered in all shapes and sizes. A plurality of respondents said they prefer access to government documents on the internet, but significant numbers said they still would prefer to get printed government publications by mail or from government offices and libraries.
  • E-government is not an option, it’s a necessity. The vast majority of Americans want and expect information about government programs to be available on the internet. People have different preferences for dealing with government, depending on the issue they face. They prefer to use the internet for information queries, but they want to use the phone or face-to-face visits to address more personal matters.

Americans deal with a complex array of issues and problems in their everyday lives –from health care to education to employment to retirement. Many of these problems require negotiating a bewildering bunch of information sources. This report focuses on some common problems that have connections to government agencies and programs.

We examine how people search for information when they face these problems and how they act on that information. Beyond that, we pay particular attention to the 36% of Americans who have limited access to the internet. They either do not have any internet access at all (23% of Americans), or they have no broadband at home or at work (another 13% of Americans). This research was particularly oriented towards helping librarians and government officials learn how their institutions currently serve this “low internet access” population. In all, 2,796 American adults were surveyed about these issues, and an oversample of 733 “low internet access” respondents is part of the survey. The overall sample has a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points for the whole sample and 3 points for the low-access sample.


Question 1: What sources of information do people consult when they need to address problems?

Major finding: More people turned to the internet than any other source of information and support, including experts, family members, government agencies, or libraries.

Respondents were asked whether they had encountered 10 possible problems in the previous two years, all of which had a potential connection to dealing with the government or seeking government information. The problems were: 1) dealing with a serious illness or health concern; 2) making a decision about school enrollment, financing school, or upgrading work skills; 3) dealing with a tax matter; 4) changing a job or starting a business; 5) getting information about Medicare, Medicaid, or food stamps; 6) getting information about Social Security or military benefits; 7) getting information about voter registration or a government policy; 8) seeking helping on a local government matter such as a traffic problem or schools; 9) becoming involved in a legal matter; and 10) becoming a citizen or helping another person with an immigration matter.

Respondents often had faced multiple problems so they were instructed to focus on the most recent episode they had experienced on the list. They were then asked where they went for help and the internet topped the list:

  • 58% of those who had recently experienced one of those problems said they used the internet (at home, work, a public library or some other place) to get help.
  • 53% said they turned to professionals such as doctors, lawyers or financial experts.
  • 45% turned to friends and family members for advice and help.
  • 36% consult newspapers and magazines.
  • 34% directly contacted a government office or agency.
  • 16% consult television and radio.
  • 13% went to the public library.

Question 2 : Which sources of information yield the most successful outcomes in these problem-solving searches?

Major finding : Most people were successful in getting information to help them address a problem no matter what channel they chose and no matter what problem they faced. [A table of all results on success appears on page 15 of the main report.]

  • 65% of those who approached the government for help said they were very successful.
  • 64% of those who went to the public library were very successful.
  • 63% of those who used the internet were very successful.

The nature of the problem being solved did not much affect successful outcomes. Both simple and complex problems yielded similar results. The range for the very successful searches ran from 65% for those trying to get further educational help to 57% of those dealing with a health problem. All others fell in between.

Question 3: Do public libraries play special roles in people’s lives as they try to solve problems?

Major finding: Those who do turn to libraries have success, and they appreciate all the resources available at libraries, especially access to computers and the internet. And those in Generation Y (age 18-30) were the most likely to turn to libraries for problem-solving information.

Faced with a problem in the past two years that they needed to address, about one in eight adults (13%) say they turned to their local public library for help and information. Here’s why:

  • 65% of adults who went to a library for problem-solving help said that access to computers, particularly the internet, was key reason they go to the library for help. And 62% of adults who went to the library for help actually used the computers at the library.
  • 58% of those with problems said they used library reference books.
  • 42% of those with problems said they perused library newspapers and magazines.

The problem that was most likely to be cited by those who went to libraries related to education – either making a decision about a school, getting more training, or finding financial resources. That reason was cited by 20% of the adults who went to libraries for help.

Asked whether they would go to a library in the future to help them solve problems, 40% of Gen Y said it was likely they would go, compared with 20% of those over age 30.

Question 4: Who uses libraries, not just for problem solving, but for all purposes?

Major finding : 53% of American adults report going to a local public library in the past 12 months. The profile of library users shows an economically upscale, information hungry clientele who use the library to enhance their already-rich information world. Gen Y again leads the pack again.

Public library patrons are generally younger adults, those with higher income and education levels, and those who are internet users. Parents with minor children living at home are very likely to be patrons. There are no significant differences in library usage by race and ethnicity.

Question 5: How many people have encounters with government, whether to solve problems or address other matters?

Some 58% of Americans said they contacted any branch of government in the past year. Those who had contacted government were asked how they made the connection:

  • 42% said they visited a government office.
  • 29% said they have called a government office.
  • 18% said they have sent an email to a government office or agency.
  • 13% say they have written a letter to the government.

Contact with the government is made across various levels of administration and not concentrated at one level. Twenty-seven percent of those who had contacted government in the previous year said they contacted local government, and the same percentage said they contacted state government. Slightly fewer, 23%, said they contacted the federal government.  And 12% said they reached out to several different levels of government.

Question 6: If they had a choice, how would people prefer to interact with government?

Major finding: People’s preferences for dealing with government are driven by the nature of the problem they are trying to address – sometimes the internet is preferred; sometimes the phone; sometimes other kinds of contact such as face-to-face visits. [A full table of answers to the question on preferences is on page 9 of the main report.]

We asked respondents about six different kinds of problems or types of encounters they might have with government and how they would prefer to interact with officials if those problems emerged in their lives. It turns out that the path people would like to use depends on the kind of problem they are addressing.  

  • If they faced a personal tax question, a majority of respondents (57%) said they would prefer to use the phone to interact with government.
  • If they wanted to do research for school or work using government material, a substantial majority (66%) would prefer to use the internet.
  • If they wanted to get a license or permit for their car, the majority (53%) would opt for doing it in person at a government office.
  • If they wanted to learn about government benefits for themselves or another person, a plurality (46%) would prefer to do so online. Some 26% say they would use a phone and 25% would pick a different way, such as in-person encounters.
  • If they wanted to learn about programs that various government agencies offer, a majority (55%) would prefer to use the internet.
  • If they wanted to get information about community matters such as education, crime or traffic from government sources, 35% say they would pick the internet, 32% would pick a face-to-face encounter; and 26% would choose a phone call.

Question 7 : As they deal with problems, do people with limited or no access to the internet have different needs and search strategies than those who have broadband connections?

Major finding: Those in the low-access population – the 36% of adults who do not use the internet or only have dial-up connections – face health problems and matters related to government benefits at the same rate as those with high-access. But they do not face most other problems at the same level as those with high-access. The internet is not a factor in their searches and they rely more on television and radio than the high-access group. And they are less successful than those with high-access in getting the material they need.  

  • The low-access population is older, poorer, and less well-educated than the general population:  55% of low-access group live in households earning less than $40,000 a year, compared with 24% of the high-access group.
  • 39% of the low-access group is age 63 or older: only 9% of the high-access group is in this age bracket.
  • 64% of the low-access group has a high school education or less, compared with 33% of the high-access group.

Those in the low-access group are less likely to have interacted with government in the previous year or visited a library. Those with low-access are just as likely as those with high-access to have faced a health problem, or sought information about major government aid programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. But they are much less likely than those who have high-access to say they had job-related matters enter their lives, or face an education-related problem, or deal with a tax question, or handle an immigration matter, or seek information about a local government concern.  They are more likely than high-access users to say they consulted TV and radio as sources of information.

Those in the low-access cohort are less likely to report being very successful in their searches for help than those than those with high-access (54% v 63%). Broken down further within the low-access group, 61% of those with dial-up internet access said they were very successful, compared with 50% of those with no access at all.

Question 8 : Are privacy concerns a hindrance to use of government agencies, libraries, and the internet in problem solving?

Major finding : About a fifth of Americans with problems to address said they were concerned about privacy disclosures as they hunted for information. These concerns influenced the method they ultimately chose for gathering information, and they were somewhat more pronounced for the low-access group.

Some 19% of those who faced problems said that the fear of the disclosure of personal information played at least some role in the path they chose toward information or help. Those in the low-access group were somewhat more concerned than others.

Question 9 : How would people like to have access to government documents?

Major finding : A plurality of Americans interviewed said that in the future, they would prefer to access government documents via the internet, but significant numbers said they would still prefer to get the printed form of government publications by mail or from government offices and libraries.

The U.S. Government Printing Office provides citizens with documents in both print and digital forms and distributes them in many different ways. Americans have an appetite for access documents through all available options: Two in five Americans (40%) said they would prefer to get the government document on the internet, compared with 31% who would prefer it be sent via the mail. One in five (19%) would prefer to pick up the document at a government office and 6% said they would go to the local public library.

The low-access group more strongly favors print publications delivered in the traditional way: 46% would like the document by mail, 25% from the government office, 15% on the internet and 8% at the library.